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Medieval England

Steven Muhlberger

The Church under the Normans

In this lecture we will examine how Norman rule opened up England to cultural influences from outside, particularly in regard to ecclesiastical observance and government.

The major issues of church reform in the mid-eleventh century, in the time of Edward the Confessor, were much the same as they had been in the time of Edgar, in the tenth century.

However, the issue of simony was heating up in the eleventh century. Simony was the buying and selling of church offices, usually for the benefit of secular patrons. Simony could be seen as buying and selling the Holy Spirit, and thus a serious sin, maybe serious enough to cast doubt on the sacraments performed by clerics guilty of it.

To this sinful practice, which was very common, the reformers opposed the ideal of free, canonical elections,  in which abbots were elected by their monks and bishops by the clergy and people of their dioceses, without the interference of patrons and without money changing hands.

As in the tenth century, reformers in the mid- eleventh century looked to powerful rulers to help purify the church and restore its proper independence.

From our point of view, the big difference between the mid-tenth century and the mid-eleventh century was that England, once in the vanguard of reform, was lagging behind.  When a new line of crusading popes came to power in Rome in the 1040s and 1050s, England was out of step. The case of Stigand was a major factor here. Stigand was made archbishop of Canterbury  in 1051, after the Norman Robert of Jumieges was expelled by Earl Godwine. His installation was a flagrant example of all they were fighting against -- the violation of church law and ecclesiastical independence by powerful members of the laity.

I have mentioned before how this played politically into William the Conqueror's hand.  William the Conqueror, even before he came to England, enjoyed the type of reputation in church circles that King Edgar had in his time. When he came to effective power in Normandy he had restored the authority of bishops to rule their dioceses, founded monasteries, and recruited the ablest men he could find to be his bishops and abbots. Some of these new ecclesiastical leaders were famous monks from outside Normandy, such as the Italian scholar, logician and theologian Lanfranc, who was entrusted with the monastery of Bec. William's reformed Norman church was thus put in touch with the latest ecclesiastical fashions.

When William came to England, he had a mandate, if he wanted it, to make sweeping changes in the English church. He did not move precipitously. Not until 1070, after the first serious English revolts against him, did William even depose the discredited Stigand -- to replace him with Lanfranc, abbot of Bec. This was the beginning of a flood of continental prelates into England. After 1070, William was desperate to fill all positions of authority with those he could trust. Even without the ideology of reform, this probably would have meant that English prelates would have been replaced with Normans and other continentals as incumbents died and positions opened up. The reform ideology gave William and his clerics a rationale for sweeping institutional changes.

Many Anglo-Saxon sees were moved from small towns, where they had been for centuries, to larger towns that had grown up in the meantime.  The moves marked a step in the urbanization of England, and no doubt made the bishops more powerful figures politically.

Lanfranc was concerned to build up the stature of his own see of Canterbury.  He insisted that the archbishop of York in the north swear obedience to him. Eventually the case went to Rome, where Lanfranc's position won, on the strength of forged documents and, no doubt, the influence of King William, who was determined to limit northern autonomy wherever possible. The supremacy of Canterbury in the church of England dates from this time.

More important perhaps than these purely institutional matters was the way that the English clergy were suddenly expected to live up to the highest reforming standards, as defined by a bunch of foreigners. England, like every other Latin Christian country, had a terrible record of enforcing clerical celibacy. The circumstances of the Conquest gave the new bishops the clout to change this -- or at least try.  This  policy must have pushed out a lot of Englishmen from plum positions in the higher ranks of the church.

An even faster revolution took place in the monasteries. English monasteries were not especially corrupt or lax, but none of them followed the Benedictine rule in quite the same way as the famous reform monasteries of the continent. The new abbots began to impose their own customs on their monks, and they sometimes went to extremes to do so.

Relations between the English church and its king changed somewhat as a result of the conquest. William fulfilled one point in the reformers' program by separating church and secular courts. Formerly, matters of church discipline, like other lawsuits, were judged at the regular shire and hundred courts. From William's time on, they were to be adjudicated by special ecclesiastical tribunals made up of clerics using church law. On another serious matter, however, William bound church and state (if we can use the latter term for convenience) closer together. Ecclesiastical bodies had always been generally obligated to help defend the realm. William made this obligation a formal and burdensome one by treating all monasteries and episcopal sees as fiefs, required like all other fiefs to provide knight for the royal army.

William the Conqueror made the English church conform more closely to continental standards. He increased the king's power over the church, to the point that he refused to let anyone communicate with the pope without royal permission. He made it an instrument of political and cultural penetration. He must have seemed, by the standards of the mid-eleventh century, to be an ideal reforming king.

His sons did not enjoy the same reputation.

By the mid-1070s, the pope, as leader of the reform movement, had decided that the church must be independent, not only of lesser lay patrons, but even of rulers. Rulers, formerly seen as Vicars or deputies of Christ, were no such thing. They were hardly better than any other laymen. If they dared to invest bishops with the symbols of their office, the staff and the ring, it was simony; demanding homage from bishops and abbots was almost as bad.

Since rulers everywhere had a big role in ecclesiastical elections, the papacy was making a revolutionary demand. A major result was the investiture controversy with the German emperor, which convulsed Germany and Italy with war for half a century.

William was too much a designated hero of the church to be held to the new standards, especially since the pope had his hands full with the emperor. But William Rufus, once king, faced opposition from the more zealous of his prelates.

The conflict was aggravated by personalities. William Rufus, unlike his father, did not give a hang about church reform. He was unwilling even to pretend an interest. William, who was the quintessential warrior-king and a hero of the rising knightly class, cared nothing for anyone who was not a knight. For him, the church was just one of his possessions, to be exploited like any other.

It was an established rule that when there was no bishop or abbot, the revenues of the bishopric or monastery went to the king. Following the death of Lanfranc, Rufus left Canterbury vacant for some years, which must have boosted his income substantially.

In 1093, Rufus became very ill, and in an effort to turn aside divine wrath, promised gifts and concessions to the church. The king allowed the church of Canterbury to elect an archbishop. This was Anselm, abbot of Bec, and a protege of Lanfranc. Like Lanfranc, Anselm was a theologian and scholar of European-wide reputation, a monk of unsullied life, and a convinced reformer. He was to be William Rufus' most aggravating adversary.

Anselm felt honor-bound to resist Rufus's attacks on the independence of the church. In 1097, after four years of sparring, Anselm left England without the king's permission in order to consult with the pope. Rufus made it known that Anselm shouldn't bother to come back. That was where things stood when William Rufus was shot down in the New Forest in the year 1100. The scandal about Anselm's exile, in fact, was one of the reasons that contemporaries interpreted the king's death to God's vengeance on a wicked man.

One of Henry I's initial moves upon becoming king was to call Anselm back. The reconciliation between king and archbishop quickly broke down, however. Anselm returned to England determined to enforce the church's rights. He was particularly insistent that the king could not invest bishops with their staffs and rings, or require them to do homage. Anselm refused to recognize any bishops Henry created in this matter.

After a bit, Anselm went back into exile. Both English protagonists were tired enough of fighting that they cast around for a solution. The royal advisors put forward the idea that bishops held two kinds of rights and property. First, there were the spiritualities, things that only a cleric could legitimately own, like tithes and offerings, specifically meant to support the church and its sacraments. The second kind of ecclesiastical property was called the temporalities, ordinary rights and lands given to bishops by the king's ancestors.

Henry's camp offered to surrender the right of investiture with ring and staff and all claim on the spiritualities; in return, the bishops should agree to do homage for the temporalities. Anselm was dubious about this compromise, but the pope Paschal II, jumped at the chance to settle with one of the great kings of the west -- at that point he was on the outs with every important Christian monarch. Indeed, the English settlement was used as a model for later agreements with the French king and the German emperor.

In 1107, Anselm returned home and everybody was happy.

The agreement between the king and the pope over the appointment of bishops was only a limited victory for the reformers. Kings in England, as elsewhere, continued to get their candidates elevated to bishoprics, and to draw upon their talents for their own purposes, just as before. Bishops continued to be the equivalent of cabinet ministers or of presidents of crown corporations.

But the ending of the investiture controversy established a principle very dear to the reformers. Bishops were not just servants of the crown, at the beck and call of kings and princes. The church was a body with its own rules, rules that even kings had to follow. The guarantor of those rules, the ultimate referee and legislator, was the pope. The agreement between Paschal II and Henry I was a recognition that the English church was a department of the universal or Roman church. That church was no longer just an expression or an idea, but a real working organization, with its own law, courts, and rights over property.

The victory of the reform papacy, limited as it was, amplified the effects of the Norman Conquest. William I had made England part of a larger state, the remainder of which was on the continent, thus opening England to all sorts of intimate cultural contacts.

Anslem and Paschal succeeded in attaching the English church even more closely to the western European headquartered in Rome, thus making the church even more than before a tie between England and the wider world beyond. Both processed made the twelfth century the time when England was less insular than ever before or since.

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Copyright ©1999, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.